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China is a huge country full of dozens of cities with millions in each one. All have history and some are better known that others. We don’t think Beijing has to be your first stop but it was ours and it combined a more tourist friendly city with some survival episodes too. These were important as we pushed deeper into China, we would not have had the same adjustment had we begun in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Macau.
First off just know it can be difficult to get around. Hotel concierge services are a lifeline to recommend a lot of places as well as write them down on a piece of paper for me to give to a taxi driver or train ticket agent. Chinese people are very friendly and are willing to help but there is often no language anyone speaks but Chinese outside of hotels. For that reason you should have all your questions, directions and maps with you before you go sightseeing. Always keep the hotel number handy too as cities are so huge even taxi drivers probably won’t know your hotel. Beijing has a great metro and most tier 1 cities do so there’s room for do it yourself travel as well.
Beijing has places you can easily access yourself with a little bit of knowledge about the metro, buses and walking: Tiananmen square which is a large square center of Beijing, the Forbidden City where the Ming Dynasty Emperors lived, Ming Tombs where the Emperors were buried. Guided tours range from $60 in a group and $150 for private but you honestly don’t need this if you are comfortable making your way. Cash isn’t always necessary but it is good to have it because sometimes we just found it necessary. Beijing has similar sites to other major Chinese cities: massive temples, parks, pagoda’s gardens and old city districts. Museums are a big feature too.
Like many other Chinese cities Beijing has attractions which combine wild nature and man made wonders around an hour or so outside the modern city. The most famous example would be the Great Wall. Its closest access from Beijing is an hour and a half away at a site called Badaling. To get here without renting an expensive taxi for the day, there is the possibility of getting the metro and a tourist bus. It is a bit adventurous for sure, but we did so affordably and with the help once again of our concierge writing down all of our directions in Chinese. We found this to be a great school for many other cities like taking a bus to see the Terra Cotta warriors in Xian, The bamboo forests of Anji and many other day trip sites from major Chinese cities.